Review: The Memory of Old Jack

The Memory of Old Jack, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 1999 (Originally published 1974).

Summary: Old Jack Beechum, the oldest of the Port William membership, spends a September day remembering his life.

This book resonated powerfully with me. It brought to mind my father’s last years after my mother passed. His short term memory was failing even as he grew more frail. Mostly he spent his days remembering what he could, the earlier days of his life, summing up in a sense what his life had meant. From our conversations, these were grace-filled memories, and there was about him a profound sense of thanksgiving. He was already at peace about his life well before we laid him to rest.

As the title of this work suggests, this is also an account of remembering and summing up a life. On one hand, it is a narrative of a single sunny day in September. It is also a day of remembering the most significant events in his life. Early morning, old Jack Beechum stands on the hotel porch where he now lives, listening to the sounds of the men going about their chores and a day of tobacco harvesting. He hears Mat Feltner, a man in his sixties, an anchor of the community, and recalls him as a boy with his father Ben as he hitches up his new mule team. He recalls Ben Feltner, the loan Ben had fronted him, and the mentor he had been in the care of his land when he was bereft of his own parents and starting out.

His wife Ruth occupies many of his memories. Her beauty which led him to pursue her. Her ambitions, which led him both into debt, and a falling out with the tenant of an adjacent farm he bought, Will Wells. Ruth wanted him to be a prosperous landowner with many others working for him. He wanted to care for and lovingly restore the land he had, that his father had so neglected.

He remembers the crucible through which he went. Selling the adjacent farm at a loss, Ruth’s increasing estrangement, and the fire in his barn and more loss and debt, and the years of extra work to own his land free and clear. He goes through a kind of death returning from a fruitless errand for Ruth to get caught in a flood, barely surviving with his team, cutting loose his wagon.

After Ruth’s daughter Clara was born, Ruth insisted they sleep apart. What followed was an affair with the doctor’s widow, Rose McInnis, each meeting the hunger in the other. There came the day when a question from Ruth revealed she knew and he knew “the wound he had given her.” Shortly after, Jack returns from a trip to learn Rose had perished in a fire. All he has left is his land, on which at 48, he had paid off the mortgage–and a renewed sense of his own life:

That his life was renewed, that he had been driven down to the bedrock of his own place in the world, and his own truth and had stood again, that a profound peace and trust had come to him out of his suffering and his solitude, and that this peace would abide with him to the end of his days–all this he knew in the quiet of his heart and kept to himself.

He had come through his own valley of the shadow of death. Eventually there is one with whom he shares what he has learned–Mat Feltner, now what he once was to Mat’s father Ben. Pointing to Mat’s land, he says, “That’s all you’ve got, Mat. It’s your only choice. It’s all you can have; whatever you try to gain somewhere else, you’ll lose here.”

Sadly, his own daughter will not understand what Mat and the circle around him–Nathan and Hannah Coulter, Burley Coulter, and the tenant who cares for his farm, Elton Penn–understand. Clara followed her mother’s ways, marrying a banker, who refused an opportunity to buy an adjacent farm, that one day could be joined to Jack’s own. Clara even took dying Ruth, whose last words to Jack are “Bless you, Jack, good-by.” Jack continues as long as he can alone until he moves into the hotel.

Just before dinner on that September day, young Andy Catlett stops by to say good-bye. Andy is headed off to college, yet loves the land as he does. There is a fitting closure here, of love and fealty on Andy’s part, of blessing of the young man. It seems each knows they will not see the other again.

There is exquisite writing throughout here, and none more than in the chapter “Return.” Everything Berry writes reflects love of land, of place, of animals well-cared for, and a community that shares these values. In this work, these become the source of renewal for Old Jack, a kind of “pearl of great price.” The theme of mentors, from one generation to the next, runs through this work. There is a company of men who not only work alongside and impart wisdom, but who affirm one another’s worth and dignity. It is striking how Mat honors Old Jack when he is long past being any “use” even as Jack had honored him. Finally there is the forging of character in Jack, from the proud young man who marries a kind of “trophy” wife only to discover that he cannot live up to her expectations, to the humbled man, reckoning with all his errors, doing what he can to make amends, even with Ruth, and in the process not only becomes himself, but a model to others.

Berry reminds us that unless death comes suddenly, there will come the time of summing up, of remembering. What will we remember, and will we have found the peace that abides to the end of our days? He reminds me that it is never too soon to address oneself to these questions.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Elizabeth Hartman

Elizabeth Hartman, From a publicity still, 1966. Photographer unknown. Public Domain.

The recent passing of renowned actor Sidney Poitier on January 6 of this year reminded many of us from Youngstown of Elizabeth Hartman who played opposite him in A Patch of Blue. In 1966, she received a Best Actress Nomination in the Academy Awards for her role, the youngest actress to do so. I remember how proud all of us were. We’d point to her on the screen or in a news story and say, “She’s from Youngstown!” And she was a slender, freckled redhead with all-American good looks that turned all our heads.

She was born Mary Elizabeth Hartman on December 23, 1943 to Claire (Mullaly) and Bill C. Hartman, a local building contractor. Even while in Boardman High School, she already was gaining notice for her acting, playing Laura in The Glass Menagerie as well as having roles in productions of A Clearing in the Woods and Our Town at the Youngstown Playhouse. She won a statewide award for her role in The Glass Menagerie.

After graduation in 1961, she attended Carnegie Mellon University, known for its theatre program. During summers, she acted with the Kenley Players and at the Cleveland Playhouse, where she had roles in The Mad Woman of Chaillot and Bus Stop. During her time in Pittsburgh, she met her husband Gill Dennis, a future director and screenwriter. They married in 1968.

In 1964, she moved to New York, auditioning for plays, and winning the leading role in Everybody Out, the Castle is Sinking. The play was not a success, but she received recognition and screen tests with MGM and Warner Brothers. That fall, she was offered the role in A Patch of Blue. Sadly, her father died at this time. In addition to her Academy nomination in 1966, she won a Golden Globe award as well as an achievement award from the National Association of Theater Owners.

She played in several major films between 1966 and 1973: The Group, You’re A Big Boy Now, The Beguiled, and the blockbuster Walking Tall in 1973, portraying Pauline Mullins, the wife of Sheriff Bufford Pusser. In 1975, she starred in the Tom Rickman play, Balaam, and played various TV roles over the next years. She began in a touring role of Morning’s at Seven in 1981, but left due to declining mental health. Her last on-screen performance was in a horror spoof, Full Moon High, playing Miss Montgomery. She also did acclaimed voiceovers for Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH in 1982. It was her last role.

Elizabeth Hartman had always struggled with depression. In 1978, she spent a year at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut. She separated from her husband in 1979 and they divorced in 1984. She moved back to Pittsburgh, continuing to receive treatment for her depression from the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, while working at a local museum. On the morning of June 10, 1987, she called her psychiatrist saying she was very despondent. Later that day, she fell from her fifth floor apartment window to her death. No note was found. She lies at rest back in Youngstown, at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.

She was a brilliant actor, who could “become” a variety of roles. Her brother-in-law, Robert H. Shoop, Jr said of her, ″She had an unbelievable talent. She was able to portray so many people on the stage and yet, she wasn’t like any of them.″ In her New York Times obituary, Elizabeth Hartman is quoted from a 1969 interview, saying, ”That initial success beat me down. It spiraled me into a position where I didn’t belong. I was not ready for that. I suddenly found myself failing.” She rose meteorically, and then the roles slowed down as fickle Hollywood turned to others.

Given her early, meteoric rise, one wonders whether she ever had a chance to figure out who she was beyond her roles. Her struggle throughout her life suggests a physiological condition that the talk therapies of the day could not greatly help. The most effective anti-depressant medications only came online after her death.

One can never answer the questions of “what if?” All we can do is remember Elizabeth Hartman’s artistic excellence and honor her memory. We also can take pride in the local institutions, from high school theatre programs to the Youngstown Playhouse and the Kenley Players, that gave her the opportunity to develop her craft. Seeing those images of her with Sidney Poitier once again reminded me, “she was from Youngstown” but also that we lost her too soon.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Review: Stuck in the Present

Stuck in the Present: How History Frees & Forms Christians, David George Moore (Foreword by Carl R. Trueman). Abilene, TX: Leafwood Publishers, 2021.

Summary: A discussion of the value of reading history for the Christian, better equipping us not only to understand our past but to engage our present, and how to make the most of what we learn.

“There is no truth in history.” “You can’t trust anyone who writes history.” I’ve seen comments like this in social media, as well as in some commentary. In part, I understand the comments. I’ve read “historical” accounts that are selective, cherry-picking facts that support whatever they are asserting, while ignoring other facts that weaken their case. But I also love history and have read a lot of it. And I can point to careful historians who don’t leave things out and form their conclusions on the basis of facts and primary sources. I learn from them, and when I see present day parallels, I can discern more of the implications facing us. Seeing what happened when an archduke was assassinated in Central Europe, triggering the events of World War I, I see how fraught “incursions” on Ukraine’s sovereignty could be.

David George Moore, in this highly readable account, makes the case for the benefits to Christians of reading history, and how we may do so discerningly. He contends that due to our disdain for history, many of us are stuck in the present, impoverished of the longer view that gives us a breadth of perspective from which to assess present events. He begins though for arguing that we end the divide between head and heart– that we both invest in the hard work of learning history (head) and do so that we might more fully love God and others (heart). The hard involves concentration, a willingness to weigh different viewpoints, including those we might dissent from, and may often be motivated by our passion for cogent witness. He contends that learning is spiritual, ongoing, practical, and can be painful when it requires change of us. It is relentlessly curious.

He goes on to argue that the past is not the past. He contends that Christians, of all people, ought get this idea. The events of the death and resurrection of Jesus set in motion a chain of events that stretches over 2000 years and shape the very form of our lives and worship, and even many of our church buildings. Often, the study of history reveals our own cultural blind spots. History explains how we got here and gives us a shared memory and heritage, a profound resource at times of difference and a source of hope.

He then tackles the question of what we can know of the past. He observes that the past may sometimes be easier to study than the present–it is easier to distinguish the important from the trivial. He outlines how one may distinguish good from shoddy historical scholarship–the thorough consideration of all relevant primary sources, the balanced discussion of different viewpoints, the judiciously reached conclusions that don’t go beyond or contrary to sources. He argues that these practices, while distinctive from scientific methods, demonstrate the possibility of historical work not hopelessly mired in subjectivity.

He concludes with the dispositions necessary for productive learning–humility, honesty about our sin, remembering only God is omniscient, and listening well. He contends for four practices he calls Moore’s Maxims when dealing with important and controversial matters:

  1. Be sure that we have properly understood the other’s position.
  2. Be certain that we understand our own position.
  3. Recognize that we may give our positions more importance than they deserve, that we may differ over matters of secondary importance that we may just agree to disagree on.
  4. Always strive to communicate with grace.

He concludes by commending the three virtues of holiness, humility and humor, especially the ability to laugh at ourselves.

Moore’s discussion is punctuated by application sections titled “Benefits to your ministry.” This should not be taken as just for pastors since all of us are called to serve (or minister on behalf of) the Lord. His argument is one relevant to every Christian and leaves us better equipped to engage. How I wish, for example, that our present day American church had learned the lessons that run from Constantine to the present about how the church was always seriously weakened in terms of spiritual power when it entwined itself with state power.

The work includes two appendices. The first consists of three interviews that offer case studies of the value of reading history with Robert Tracy McKenzie on the First Thanksgiving, Jemar Tisby on the American church and race, and James McPherson on the Civil War. The second was of interest, raising some concerns over the “Inductive Method.” He grounds his discussion in both the other approaches used to engage scripture in the church’s history and the inductive method being grounded in Common Sense Realism. I found it curious that his objection to inductive study might equally be applied to his defense of historical research. In truth, neither are totally detached and objective–but that doesn’t mean that either is necessarily mired in subjectivity. The checks of humility, of checking our understanding against received tradition, of the danger of forced applications are well taken.

I was surprised here at the absence of any reference in the text or notes to Robert A. Traina, whose Methodical Bible Study was the Bible of Inductive study, and whose instruction at Biblical Seminary in New York was influential upon many who taught this method (including the reviewer, through one of his students). Traina would probably readily concur with his concerns but argue that careful textual study, rooted first in observation, is the counterpart to the good historiography Moore upholds in other parts of this work and addresses his concerns.

That quibble aside, this is a readable, engaging, and vital argument for the importance of reading and knowing history. The suggested reading points the reader to more resources making this case and exemplifying good historiography. While Moore makes a serious case for reading history, it is also evident that he, as have I, have discovered the rich enjoyment awaiting the reader as they delve into good works of history. I hope that will be the case for many (and I hope it is many) who read his book!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Artists in Crime

Artists in Crime, (Roderick Alleyn #6), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2012 (originally published in 1937).

Summary: A murder occurs at the studio of artist Agatha Troy, who Alleyn had met on his voyage back to England; the beginning in fits and starts of a romance while Alleyn seeks to solve the crime.

It isn’t a promising beginning. An untimely interruption onboard ship followed by a brusque brushoff. Nevertheless artist Agatha Troy paints a striking likeness of Alleyn which he presents to his mother upon his return to England. It turns out Lady Alleyn lives but a few miles from Agatha Troy’s home and studio Tatter’s End House in Bossicote. Troy has turned the back garden into a studio for students who want to train under her, living at her house.

One of the students, Watt Hatchett, is a rough-around-the-edges Australian Troy has brought back and is sponsoring, recognizing his talent. The rest are a rag-tag collection of characters. Francis Ormerin is an aloof student from Paris. Cedric Malmsley is a bearded poseur, pretending to more talent than he has yet to evidence. Phillida Lee is a country girl turned Bohemian. Basil Pilgrim has the (mis)fortune to be the son of a strict religionist peer. Valmai Seacliff is the beauty who knows it, drawing the men to her like flies. Katti Bostock is the gruff but accomplished painter who is Troy’s roommate. She hired the beautiful but temperamental model, Sonia Gluck who is romantically involved with a sculptor, Garcia, extremely talented but without morals.

Alleyn’s reunion with his mother is cut short when Sonia is found murdered. About a week earlier, there was an experiment to make the scene she was posing, in which the figure posed has been impaled on a knife driven through a throne, concealed by a drape. A couple of students drove an actual knife through the draped seat so that it would stab the figure in the heart. It was all forgotten until everyone returned from weekend activities to set up the scene and resume their work. Sonia, who had a hard time keeping a pose and has incurred the wrath of nearly everyone at some point, is forcefully positioned by Valmai. She cries out, jerks, and passes out. When others come to help make her comfortable, they discover that she is impaled on the knife, hidden under the drape. And she dies. And Garcia has disappeared, supposedly on a walking tour.

All of them, including Troy are suspects. It is obvious there is a chemistry between Alleyn and Troy, yet the awkward questions and investigation that must occur do not provide the most conducive atmosphere for a romance. What is striking is that Troy is portrayed as strong, self-sufficient and self-possessed. It is Alleyn who comes off awkward, even apologetic. This is very different from, say, Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey (although Harriet is also a strong character).

But this doesn’t prevent Alleyn and his team of Fox, Bailey, and his journalist and Watson figure, Nigel Bathgate, from uncovering the truth. Young Pilgrim isn’t as pure as he seems. Malmsley is an opium user who isn’t above copying a famous scene, pretending it is his own work. Bathgate discovers through a sometime roommate of Sonia’s the sordid game she and Garcia have been playing. And who was it who had a late night meeting with Garcia? And Marsh lays a few surprises at the end, just when we think we know who the real killer is.

This “queen of crime” gives us a strong female counterpart to Alleyn, and casts aspersions on the gender pretensions of others. The portrayal of Valmai shows a disapproval of the glamourous female and it is only as Phillida stops pretending so much to be Bohemian that she becomes interesting. The unrefined Watt Hatchett, the only male favorably portrayed, helps bring this out. Ormerin, Malmsley, Pilgrim, and Garcia all come off badly. Today, we would call her best characters authentic, the ones who ring true.

The plot is straightforward, with enough twists to keep you on your toes, the characters interesting, the repartee between Alleyn and Bathgate sparkles, and Marsh leaves us all wondering whether and how the romance with Troy will go.

Review: Glass Houses

Glass Houses (Chief Inspector Gamache #13), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2017.

Summary: A mysterious figure robed in black, the murder of a woman found in those robes, a confession, and a trial, during which Gamache has made choices of conscience that could cost lives and save many.

A woman is on trial for a murder in Three Pines and Gamache is the key prosecution witness. The previous fall, a mysterious, black-cloaked figure appears on the village green. Everyone is disturbed, including four friends visiting Myrna, friends who have often visited, but never this late in the fall. They look to Gamache, now Chief Superintendent to do something, but the figure has broken no law other than stand there and stare toward the Bistro, especially toward a dishwasher and aspiring cook, Anton. Feeling runs high, with Gamache intervening to prevent bodily harm. The next morning, the figure which they have discovered is a cobrador, or “conscience,” is gone.

Then Reine-Marie discovers the body in a black robe and mask in the basement of the village chapel. The body turns out to be that of Katie Evans, one of the four visiting Myrna. Chief Inspector LaCoste and her team come to investigate. A key detail is a bat, the murder weapon, found near the body. Yet Reine-Marie, who notices everything did not mention seeing that bat. Subsequently a baker, Jacqueline, goes to Gamache’s house and makes a confession. Indeed, the evidence points toward her. Except for the discrepancy of the bat. But why the cobrador, and why did Katie end up the one murdered?

It is at this trial that Gamache is testifying, confronted by a prosecutor, Zalmanowitz, who is hostile toward his own witness. A rookie judge, assigned to the trial, begins to sense something is up. A key moment in the trial comes when Gamache testifies about the bat. He perjures himself, something we can never imagine him doing.

What is going on? It all has to do with a desperate strategy Gamache has set in motion around the time of the murder. It raises profound questions of conscience. May the law be disobeyed for the sake of a higher law, and a potentially greater good? Can this be done when it will likely cost the loss of lives, at least some of which could have been prevented, but at the expense of a greater victory? And what if such a strategy implicates the prosecutor, the judge, Jean Guy, and the top leadership of the Surete, as well as himself?

Aside from these weighty questions for which Gamache bears the weight of decision and responsibility, there are other sparkling aspects of this story. We witness the growing bond between Jean Guy and Ruth Zardo, almost his alter ego, and the sheer courage and compassion of Ruth in the climactic scene. We see Clara’s artistic genius turned to the figures of Three Pines and we wonder when she will paint Gamache. And in the presence of the cobrador, we see the residents confess to each other their moral failures, aware that the light of conscience usually reveals something unseemly in all of us. As is Gamache, aware of the momentous choices he has made that will rest on his conscience.

Review: Interpreting the God-Breathed Word

Interpreting the God-Breathed Word, Robbie F. Castleman. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018.

Summary: A book for all who want to be students of scripture focusing on how to study and understand the texts employing inductive study, speech-act theory, and canonical interpretation.

Robbie Castleman, not unlike this reviewer, discovered the joys of studying and understanding the meaning of scripture through what is known as inductive Bible study. She eventually became a biblical studies professor at John Brown University. This book reflects both her joy of discovering scripture and additional practices that address some of the ways inductive study may go off the rails in interpretation unrelated to what the passage meant for its intended audience, interpretation that fails to account for the rest of scripture and the framework of biblical theology.

Castleman begins with one of the great strengths of inductive study–careful observation of the text. She speaks of the attentive disciplines involved in hearing the God-breathed Word. Reading it over and over (including aloud!), printing out and marking up the text, asking questions of genre, setting, who, what, when, where, and how, and using our senses. One is looking for what the text says and how it says it. She shows the difference between exegesis and eisegesis–reading out of rather than into the text. I love the image of being careful to not cast our own shadows onto the text. She offers another image–that of studying as a surgeon rather than a pathologist, studying something alive to which we are attentive rather than something dead over which we assert mastery.

Castleman addresses the story or narrative character of much of scripture, and how important the particularities of time and space are. It is vital to grasp the “there and then” before we consider “here and now.” Drawing upon speech-act theory, she calls our attention that scripture is a God-breathed record of how God has spoken and acted out his will in those particularities of space and time. But something else is at work as well. Through God’s Spirit this Word of scripture speaks into our present, accomplishing God’s intentions in our lives as well.

The next three chapters further develop this idea of the three voices. The first is the actual event in which God speaks and acts that we only know indirectly through the biblical record, a voice we must listen to by faith, as we attend to the details of the text. The second voice then is the voice of the writers of the text, the time, and the circumstances in which they wrote as God breathed upon them. She uses the four gospels to illustrate this idea, accounting for both the distinctive voices and the one Lord to whom they attest. With the third voice, we step into the story as we grasp through the Spirit’s illumining work the “here and now” implications in the second voice’s “there and then.” She also shows how “third voice” dynamics work within the canon as later Old Testament writers act upon earlier material, and likewise, as the New Testament writers reflect on the Old Testament voice in light of Messiah come. Using the language of theatre, we must pay careful attention to our lines, and then step up onto the stage, loving the one who has spoken so much that we even risk “flubbing our lines.”

In the final chapter, Castleman advocates the importance of canonical interpretation, speaking of the centrality of creation, the gospel of Christ, and biblical theology as shaping how we read all of scripture. She uses C. S. Lewis image from “Meditation in a Tool Shed” to speak of how we look both at the light cast by a passage of scripture and along it, seeing how it is connected to the whole story of scripture. She then concludes with an epilogue reminding us that the God who has spoken is a fire before whom we take off our shoes and bow and listen, that scripture is not a vending machine to dispense the answers we want, and that our interpretation of scripture is music best made as we play in sync with the rest of the orchestra, stretching back to the earliest fathers, not a solo act.

There are several features that make this book a valuable resource for the person wanting to grow in reading and understanding scripture. One is the author’s warm love of scripture, that breathes in the pages. Second is the distillation and integration of some of the best practices of good hermeneutics into a brief, 120 page text. Finally, she offers numerous examples and praxis exercises that show and then allow us to practice what we are learning. This is both a good introduction for the student learning to study scripture and as well as the Bible teacher who wants to review and sharpen his or her understanding of how to lead those instructed, not only to understand the God-breathed Word but to heed and obey the One who has spoken and is speaking.

Review: The Birth of the Messiah

The Birth of the Messiah, Raymond E. Brown. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1979 (Link is to 2nd edition, published in 1999 by Yale University Press).

Summary: An academic commentary on the Birth Narratives in Matthew and Luke.

This has been on my shelves a long time, a library copy picked up at a sale many years ago. More recently, it has been joined by Brown’s two volume The Death of the Messiah. I decided for Advent this year, it would be a good time to finally dive into this magisterial commentary by Brown

The commentary consists of an overall introduction, introductions to Matthew and Luke’s account respectively, and then commentary, running section by section of each narrative. This includes Brown’s own translation of the text, notes on the text, including textual variants, and commentary. In addition to overall bibliographies, Brown offers a bibliography for each section. He also includes a number of appendices on the genealogies, the Birth at Bethlehem, virginal conception and the charge of illegitimacy, the census, and midsrash.

I will offer here some overall highlights, rather than a lengthy discussion of a lengthy commentary. First of all, it is Brown’s theory that the infancy narratives came last in the formation of the gospels, the passion narratives being first, and then the ministry narratives. One of the big questions is why these narratives are so different and Brown would chalk this up to the theology of each evangelist, which he develops in the commentaries.

First, with Matthew, he emphasizes how Matthew shows Jesus to be Son of God and son of David, fulfilling Old Testament prophecies, key for a Jewish-Christian audience. We see this in the genealogy, the five Old Testament texts which Brown would suggest may have been interpolated into an earlier pre-Matthean tradition, particularly Isaiah 7:14, which he deals with at length, as well as the visits of Magi, Herod’s attempt to kill him, and the flight to Egypt, a kind of recapitulation of Israel’s history. I was also struck with the thread of Joseph’s implicit obedience throughout. Joseph shines for this brief moment, and then slips from the scene.

The commentary on Luke focuses the transitional character of the infancy narratives, even as Acts 1-2 focuses on the transition from the ministry of Jesus to the church. The annunciation stories echo those of the births of Samuel and Samson, upon whom the Spirit dwelt. At the visit of Mary, who had conceived by the Holy Spirit, to Elizabeth, John, in utero, testifies to the coming of Jesus as Elizabeth speaks in the fullness of the Spirit. This anticipates the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. Brown also gives extensive attention to the parallel annunciations, birth narratives, and subsequent hymns. He also offers intriguing ideas about the connections of Simeon and Anna to the anawim and the Essene sect at Qumran. He observes the intensification of each of these for Jesus, showing how John is the lesser forerunner we will encounter in the following chapters.

The work reflects the historical, form, and source criticism of Brown’s time. Brown moderates some of the radical skepticism that would question the historicity of these events. Most notably, he defends the virgin conception (but not necessarily birth) of Jesus and the Davidic descent, but considers the claims of a Bethlehem birth weaker (despite this being a commonality of the two accounts), and believes Luke was in error about a census under Quirinius. He would not consider such passages such as the Magnificat as ipsissima verba of Mary, being skeptical that testimony could have come through Mary or her family to Luke.

While Brown, in this work, is more skeptical about the historicity of various aspects of these narratives than I am, it is wonderful to read with this scholar who has read scripture so closely. Having written narratives of local history, drawing on various sources, I am more sympathetic than I once was to his exploration of how Matthew and Luke composed these narratives. But I suspect that no two people who studied what I wrote could dissect the sources in the same way. There is a speculative element of this and I am more appreciative of the rhetorical criticism that looks at the final form of a work and its theological purpose. I think this is where Brown seems to be on the most solid ground.

My review is based on the first edition of this work. A revised edition was published in 1999, a year after his death. I have not had the chance to compare the two and to see if Brown’s views changed on any matters. At very least, it may reflect more current scholarship. This is well worth obtaining for any who expect to preach on these texts and offered rich devotional reflection for me.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Great County Seat Horse Race

Vintage European style engraving featuring horse racing with jockeys by Charles Simon Pascal Soullier (1861). Original from the British Library. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel. Licensed under CC0 1.0

One of the most fascinating stories in Joseph Green Butler’s History of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley is that of a horse race that occurred some time before 1810 on Federal Street. At stake? Whether Warren or Youngstown would be the county seat. You must remember that at this time, Warren had been designated the county seat ahead of the little village further down the Mahoning River.

The good people of Warren had a horse by the name of Dave that they thought could outrun anything. They even added a $500 wager, they were so sure of themselves.

The early founders of Youngstown were horse people. Judge George Tod, Judge William Rayen, James Hillman (who met John Young on his first surveying trip), and John Woodbridge. Judge Tod agreed to their bet and covered the $500 wager. He selected a bay mare owned by James Hillman and trained and curried the horse to perfection.

The race would begin at Judge Rayen’s home, located near Spring Common and run through the village on Federal Street ending at Crab Creek, a distance of about a mile. Everyone took off work that day. People from Youngstown lined up on the south side of the street. Those who came down from Warren were on the north side. A spectator observed that people “bet what money they had, bet watches, penknives, coats, hats, vests, and shoes.”

His account continues:

“Alexander Walker rode Fly, and under his tutelage the Youngstown horse forged ahead in passing Henry Wick’s store. At Hugh Bryson’s store Dave came alongside, but the spurt was unavailing as Walker plied his whip and gave a few Indian warwhoops and Fly shot ahead once more. Dave’s chance vanished then and there, for Fly reached Crab Creek six lengths ahead. In fact Fly had entered so thoroughly into the spirit of the affair by this time that she refused to stop at all and was brought up only at Daniel Sheehy’s cabin, a mile beyond the goal.”

Youngstown won the race and the $1000 purse. Youngstown bettors filled their pockets with winnings. But the county seat remained in Warren. It turns out that you can’t bet county seats and Youngstown wouldn’t even be the first county seat when Mahoning County was formed. Canfield held that honor from 1846 until 1876, when, after an Ohio Supreme Court decision, the county seat moved to Youngstown. It turn out that it takes more than a horse race to claim a county seat. But what a great story!

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Gift Articles

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I’d like to give you a gift. It is an article I just read that I liked and think you will like. About the only way I can do that these days is to cut out the article and send it to you. But I can only do that with one person.

Why? Paywalls on digital content. These often prevent non-subscribers from reading content, or only a very small number in a month. Often, you have to register at the website, subjecting you to emails from that site. For many, it is not worth it, and that article I want to share with you may end up unread.

I was so happy when the New York Times instituted a policy for its digital subscribers of permitting them to “gift” ten articles each month. I often find good things to share that I like to post on one of the social media pages I curate. Being able to do this is and not hear back, I couldn’t open it because of the paywall makes me feel better about my subscription to the NY Times.

I curate social media accounts related to books and to higher education. For each, I tend to post 3-5 articles a day selected from different media. Sometimes I can’t access a good article because of a paywall and other times, I can access an article because I subscribe to the publication but if I share it with non-subscribers, they are subject to the paywall. Result: I limit the number of paywalled articles I share.

But I don’t like it as a subscriber and I’d like (and have written) publications to which I subscribe to adopt a policy like that of the NY Times. Here’s what I think they ought to consider:

  • It is an extra subscriber benefit that gives me one more reason to keep subscribing.
  • Subscription prices are rising rapidly. If I have to cut my subscriptions, I will retain the ones that offer me the most perceived benefit.
  • The fear, I realize, is that “gift” content will discourage subscriptions. What is not considered is that gift content will help retain subscribers. From the development world, it is far easier to retain a subscriber than to get a new one.
  • Shared content that people can actually read demonstrates the worth of the publication. For example, I subscribed to The Atlantic because of online articles I read before they instituted their paywall policy.
  • Allowing “gift” articles also expands traffic to a publication’s website–as important a metric as subscribers for advertisers. When I share an article on my Facebook page, I potentially share that article with nearly 59,000 followers, a significant “reach.” In turn, they appreciate the gift and increase their engagement–and some may subscribe.
  • Magazines often allow you to give a year “gift subscription” to expand their subscriber base. Why not use gift articles to expand subscriber base?

I suspect at worst, this idea wouldn’t cost publications anything, and may have the upsides I’ve proposed. But I suspect, this may be a quixotic quest unless there was a mass subscriber movement. The publications I’ve written just tell me what I already know, which feels condescending. None made me feel they actually valued me as a subscriber and were interested in building the relationship between us. The only time most really seem to care is when I drop a subscription. Then they’ll often offer a new one for less than half what I was paying, usually via a computer generated mailing. Maybe some day they will recognize the power of a gift and the multiplier effect it can have with subscribers.

Pandemic Reflections: The Omicron Edition

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I did not think that in January of 2022 that I would still be writing pandemic reflections. Now, I’m beginning to wonder when pandemic reflections will be a thing of the past. Right now, I wonder who else I will learn has COVID when I open Facebook each day (perhaps opening Facebook is my mistake!). I keep hearing Omicron is milder but we’ve never had so many in the hospitals where I live. Right now, over 700 are dying each week in my state. Tests are hard to get. I suspect there are far more infections than those recorded on our state’s dashboard.

Against this backdrop, it is hard for me to hear talk about “new normals” and “I’ve got to live my life.” When schools scramble to get teachers in the classroom and bus drivers to get the children there, when restaurants close because all their servers are sick, when sports teams cancel big games because of “protocols,” this hardly seems normal and I wonder what kind of life we are trying to live when it requires a lot of people to get sick for us to live it, or equally when it requires us to get sick. This all sounds off to me, somehow. It makes me wonder what “living my life” means.

For me it has meant a two year respite from getting on airplanes. It’s meant growing closer to my wife who is my bubble-mate! It’s meant treasuring those times when we have gathered with others. It’s meant working on our home. It’s meant near daily neighborhood walks, glorious sunsets, changing seasons, and getting to know people along the route. So many of my work years have meant getting on a plane or jumping into a rental car for a trip and I haven’t met many of the people in our community beyond my immediate neighbors. I’ve participated in virtual pilgrimages with people from all over the country–times to walk, and meditate on scripture, to listen to stories, and to pray. I’ve written nearly 600 blogs, engaged in hundreds of online conversations, worked with over 30 talented writers in my work, hosted online conversations with a variety of authors and online book groups, and read a few good books along the way (actually more than a few!). I’ve enjoyed plein air painting with my wife and a group of artists in good weather, and actually felt I improved. While I can think of things I wish we could do, I’ve lived, and I think lived well these past years. I even weigh five pounds less than at the beginning of the pandemic (not much, but I’ll take it!).

And by God’s grace, we’ve remained healthy. I don’t presume it will continue when I hear reports saying nearly everyone will catch this latest variant. But neither am I going to run out, plunge into a big, maskless crowd and “get it over with.” That’s the vibe I get as I listen to the media. When I talk to friends our age (late 60’s), we feel like the tornado sirens are blaring and right now we are going to our safe place until the storm of this latest wave blows through. We’re getting good at this. We’ve had a lot of practice and many of us have found the richness of life on the other side of “safe at home.”

Here’s how we look at it. No illness is “milder” when you get older. It takes longer for anything from a cut to a cold or the flu to heal. Even if our vaccinations and booster mean we don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital, that can still be pretty sick. And it is a crapshoot when it comes to after effects. And getting exposed and sick adds to the strain on testing, on our primary care docs, pharmacists, and if we get sicker, a host of others at a time they are all being pressed to the wall. As far as it depends on us, we’ll try to avoid becoming another case.

What’s hard is that as you get older, it is easy not to think of yourself in that way, especially when you see the world around you trying to get back to “normal” in the middle of a wave. It’s easy to start questioning whether you are too cautious. It helps to have other older friends who tell you that you are not nuts.

So for the time, we do takeout. We shop early, and only as necessary, don’t linger, and wear at least a KN95 mask. We won’t do any indoor, unmasked gatherings with a significant group of people. Perhaps for the next few weeks at least, no indoor gatherings outside our bubble.

We don’t take talk of things “levelling off” or “lessening” at face value. We watch infection rates as a rough benchmark. At one time in our state, our governor wanted to get below 50 infected out of 100,000 (1 out of 2,000) over a two week period (and we actually got down to 19.2 per 100,000 last summer). Today the rate in our state is 1818.8 per 100,000 (nearly 2 out of 100) infected in the last two weeks (and because of test shortages, that number is probably low). That means in a group of 50, at least one person is probably infectious. That feels to me that we are amid a storm.

When it was a few hundred cases per 100,000 we did discretionary shopping, and some indoor dining at off hours. Probably, we’ll wait to see things go below 100 per 100,000 to go back to “normal,” perhaps with an Omicron booster.

At the end of the day, I realize there is no sure thing about any of this. The choices we make, we do so out of prudence (God never invites us needlessly to imperil our health or life) and love for each other. My choices affect my wife, other loved ones, and indeed a wider community. But they finally do not make us invulnerable. I live each day grateful for this day’s life (something the pandemic has taught me that is itself a gift). As a Christ-follower, I do believe that someday I will rest in peace with Christ and be raised with him in glory. So I act, not out of fear but rather as one who both lives in hope and cherishes each day of life. I’ve also learned with this pandemic this wisdom of James 5: 15 which says, “Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ ” It seems that any predictions of what this virus will do are folly, and the best we can do is say, “if it is the Lord’s will.”

This reflection is neither an argument or judgement on other choices. Some of the choices we’ve made, we realize, are not possible for others. It is simply a reflection of how we are thinking and acting at this stage of the pandemic. If it’s helpful to someone else, I’m glad, and if you see things differently, I have no interest in a quarrel. We have to get through this thing together, so a fight is counter-productive. I suspect whenever this relents, we’ll all have a lot of sorting out to do, and who knows but that we may end up helping each other–or at least forgiving each other the unkind judgements we have made upon one another.